Book Review: Tigerman

Book Review: Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

Disclaimer:  I received an uncorrected proof of this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Tigerman

Mancreu is dying.  This island in the Arabian Sea was once a quiet backwater, last colonized by the British Empire.   But a combination of industrial waste and volcanic activity have made the island a biohazardous ecodisaster waiting to happen.  A UN mission is just waiting for the final orders to evacuate the locals, and the British government has sent a final Brevet Consul to be the last watchman.

That man is Sergeant Lester Ferris, late of the British army in Afghanistan, a light duty for a man who’s seen too much war.  It’s a quiet post, having tea in the afternoon, making friends with a comic book-loving local boy, settling minor disputes and bidding farewell as those who choose to leave the island early trickle away.  And of course he very deliberately does not notice the Fleet of ships offshore, the ones who are taking advantage of a legal black hole to do things not allowed on land or sea.

But murder comes calling on Mancreu, and the situation seems to need something more than diplomacy.  It needs a hero straight out of the comics, larger than life and gifted with strange abilities.  Lester Ferris could be that hero, if he is willing to become Tigerman.

Good stuff:  The pacing of the book never feels rushed, without being too drawn out.  Even in the early expository bits, it doesn’t feel too slow or sloggish.  There are some lovely turns of phrase, justified by most of the people on the island having learned English from movies, and thus talking like characters, and by the atmosphere of Mancreu making everyone a little crazy.

Sergeant Ferris becoming Tigerman is almost plausible; he has “a very particular set of skills”, access to all sorts of interesting equipment, and just enough odd coincidences happening to him that he can believe this is something that needs doing.

The book managed to blindside me with a twist towards the end that’s not entirely original, but works well here.

Not so good stuff:  While I realize that American pop culture has steamrollered the world’s imagination, the fact that a British man in his forties makes no references whatsoever to British pop culture is weird.  I know for a fact that there is a long tradition of British comic books–Billy the Cat would seem to be an appropriate thing for Sergeant Ferris to think of when he becomes Tigerman.  But no, it’s American comics, American TV and movies.  I have to wonder if this book were deliberately written to appeal to American readers who might not get the references.

Some readers may find the “quirky” a little too thick for their tastes.

The book is due for official release 7/29/14.  I would recommend it for those seeking something a bit more “modern literature-like” in their superhero fiction.

Movie Review: Woochi the Demon Slayer

Movie Review: Woochi the Demon Slayer

Jeon Woo-chi likes to call himself a Tao master, but he’s more like a Tao apprentice who’s got lots of tricks, but not much real mastery, still relying on props to perform his magic.   Woo-chi doesn’t take his studies very seriously either, wandering around 1500s Korea pranking the king and rescuing pretty women.   He’s also not very nice to his faithful dog/horse/man sidekick, Chorangyi.

Jeon Woo-chi

Meanwhile, three bumbling Taoist “gods” have accidentally released monsters into the world, and are trying to track down a magical flute that can fix the problem.  The story lines collide when a rival Taoist wizard frames Woo-chi for the murder of his teacher, and the bumbling trio seal the young man and his sidekick inside a magical scroll without realizing he has half of the Flute.

Five hundred years later, the monsters are on the move again, and Woo-chi is reluctantly released from the scroll to deal with them.  Complicating matters is that the woman Woo-chi saved during his first lifetime has apparently been reincarnated in the present day with no memory of him.  Action and comedy ensue.

This Korean film has a misleading American title, as at no time does Woo-chi slay demons.  A closer approximation of the Korean title would be Jeon Woo-chi: The Taoist Wizard.  It’s a big-budget film by Korean standards, full of monsters, transformations and wire-fu battles.  The director very much modeled the story (loosely based on Korean legends) on superhero films.

The plot is pretty shallow; character development is mostly people just accepting who they are, or accepting that Woo-chi is the person he is.  The comedy bits are broad, some slapstick, goofy personalities, and crude sexual yearnings on the part of Chorangyi.  No existential brooding here!

Roles for women are less than progressive; the female lead specifically scorns intellectual achievement and productive skills; other notable women are a prima donna actress whose acting skills are dubious, a superstitious servant, and bad guys in disguise.

One of the deleted scenes is interesting for showing an entire subplot which has the moral, “if a supernatural being keeps saying ‘there is a knife in the money’ don’t take the money!”

It’s a fun popcorn movie, worth a cheap rental, but not a great example of Korean cinema.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero

Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero Story by Gene Luen Yang, Art by Sonny Liew

It is the 1930s, and Hank Chu lives in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Incendio.  He wants a simple, quiet life, working with his father in the family grocery store.  Hank’s mother, on the other hand, has bigger plans.  She’s learned about this new phenomenon called “superheroes” and sees no reason why a Chinese-American kid couldn’t be one.  Specifically Hank.

The Shadow Hero

Despite Hank’s reluctance, his mother drags him into a quest to become a costumed superhero, the Golden Man of Bravery.  It doesn’t work out that well.  But in the wake of tragedy, Hank discovers that he has an amazing legacy after all,  and a new purpose in life.  It’s possible that the Green Turtle may be able to do some good after all.

This book came about because Gene Luen Yang, creator of Boxers & Saints, learned about an obscure Golden Age comic book character named the Green Turtle.  An artist named Chu Hing created him as a feature for Blazing Comics.  The short-lived series had a number of peculiarities to it.  Although the Green Turtle operated in China against the Japanese invaders, and had Chinese elements to his costume, it was implied he wasn’t from China.  His face was never fully seen, either turned away from the reader, or covered by something.  And the Green Turtle kept promising to reveal how he became a costumed hero, but was always interrupted.

This created suspicion among comics scholars that Chu Hing intended for the Green Turtle to be of Chinese ancestry, but was not allowed to make this overt by his company’s editorial policy.  Sadly, Chu Hing died in obscurity long before anyone thought to ask.

So, in a feat worthy of Roy Thomas, Gene Luen Yang decided to take the fragments of information available, and weave them into a tale of America’s first Chinese-American superhero.

A great deal of humor and sadness is woven into the action.  A major theme of the story is that appearances can be deceptive.  Hank’s father is not a coward,  Red Center is not a helpless maiden, Ten Grand is not a vaudeville version of Fu Manchu, and a naked face can be the best mask of all.  Hank’s mother moves the early part of the story with her tendency to judge by appearances, and her yearning for more than the disappointments her life has offered.

Hank himself must learn how to be a hero; powers and martial arts training help, and so does motivation, but in the end he must choose wisely and justly to be a true hero.

Racism, both overt and unintentional, is a recurring problem in the setting.  Even Green Turtle’s police contact, Detective Lawful, is not as free of prejudice as he’d like to be.  There’s also some crude sexual references, so parents may want to screen the book before allowing readers below junior high or so to read it  Certainly they will want to talk to their children about inappropriate language and behavior modeled by some of the characters.

That said, this is a worthy addition to the ranks of still rare Asian-American superheroic fiction.  I highly recommend it to comics fans looking for something a little different.

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

TV Review: Martin Kane, Private Eye

Martin Kane was a fairly standard private eye appearing on radio and television 1949-1951.  He was played by four actors on TV,  William Gargan, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Tracy and Mark Stevens, each with their own characterization, from mellow cynicism to outright rudeness.

Martin Kane, Private Eye

The most notable thing about the program is that it was sponsored  by U.S. Tobacco, so instead of smoking just being a habit of the characters, it was a central theme.  Kane loves him some Old Briar pipe tobacco, and there are lovingly shot sequences of him stuffing his pipe and lighting it.  In addition, there is always a scene set in the local tobacconist’s shop, staffed by Happy McMann (Walter Kinsella), who both helps recap the plot and shills for U.S. Tobacco.

I watched five episodes of the TV show on DVD.

  • “Altered Will”:  A wealthy inventor is murdered, and it’s obvious his will was altered.  But the person it was altered in favor of couldn’t possibly have been the murderer.  Could they?
  • “A Jockey Is Murdered”:  Martin Kane is asked to get a loan shark off a jockey’s back.  When the jockey turns up dead after he loses a race, the loan shark is about the only person who doesn’t have a motive.  The solution depends on a trivia point about racetracks that I was unaware of, due to never having been to one.  (And I am not sure it still applies.)
  • “A Crooner Is Murdered”:  A singer is killed in front of a crowded nightclub.  Turns out lots of people had good reasons to want him dead, including the person who actually wrote all his songs.   There’s a small bit with a particularly misogynistic bartender.  (On average, Mr. Kane is condescending to dames himself.)
  • “The Black Pearls”  Martin Kane is lured down to Florida to take the rap for a millionaire’s murder, involving the title rare luxuries.  He manages to turn the tables, of course.  Has an interesting murder method.
  • “The Comic Strip Killer”:  An eccentric comic strip artist is basing his plotline on a recent unsolved murder.   Basing it a little too closely for the comfort of the real people involved in the case.   They hire Martin Kane to find out where the artist is getting his information.  Both the artist and his guru are murdered before Kane can get the proof, but comic strips from beyond the grave give the final clue.  Kane is at his rudest here, calling the guru a fraud to his face.

A sixth episode, “The District Attorney Killer” is listed on the DVD, but it turned out to be another copy of the comic strip story.

The comic strip episode is the most interesting, otherwise it’s a fairly generic show.  The audience that might be best pleased is smokers who sorely miss the sensual treatment of tobacco on TV shows.

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes: The Crossovers Casebook edited by Howard Hopkins

One of the fun things about fan fiction is the “crossover.”  That’s where two separate fictional worlds are combined in the same story, which is generally impossible in the source material.  Having the Enterprise crew battle the Daleks, Sailor Moon teaming up with the Brady Bunch, Bella Swan falling in love with Dracula, or any other bizarre combination the fan writer can think of.

Crossovers Casebook

Combine this with a public domain (mostly) character like Sherlock Holmes, and you can even do professionally published crossover fan fiction.  And thus this book.  Each story teams Holmes with other fictional characters or real people from the time period of the stories.  Some of the tales just barely qualify as crossovers with a quick reference at the end, while others pile on the characters and cameos.

There are fourteen stories, most of which are only available in this volume.   “Sherlock Holmes and the Lost World” by Martin Powell, which guest stars Professor Challenger, has appeared in another anthology.  Other notable tales are “The Adventure of the Fallen Stone” by Win Scott Eckert, which goes full-on Wold-Newton (a fan theory that ties together many fictional heroes with a mysterious meteorite), and “The Adventure of the Imaginary Nihilist” by Will Murray, which guest stars Richard Henry Savage, a real life person who inspired parts of both Doc Savage and the Avenger.

I particularly liked Barbara Hambly’s “The Adventure of the Sinister Chinaman”, which guest stars the Wizard of Oz…or a delusional man with a similar name.  “The Adventure of the Lost Specialist” by Christopher Sequeira lays on the crossovers thick with an outright science fiction premise, but as Watson himself admits in the introduction, it’s not much of a traditional Holmes tale.

There’s also “The Folly of Flight” by Matthew P. Mayo, guest starring French thief Arsené Lupin.  Lupin’s author, Maurice LeBlanc, was one of the first Sherlock Holmes crossover fan fiction authors;   Sir Arthur Conan Doyle did not appreciate the compliment, so Lupin’s clashes with Holmes were rewritten with a slightly different name, and a bit more mocking of a tone.

This is a fun book, but not for Holmes purists.

Book Review: Ditch the Pitch

Book Review: Ditch the Pitch by Steve Yastrow

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Ditch the Pitch

This book is subtitled “The Art of Improvised Persuasion”; it’s primarily aimed at salespeople, although the author mentions that the techniques can be used for any persuasive conversation.  Most of the focus is on using improvisation techniques to create an interactive connection with the other person, rather than a prepared sales pitch.

The author is a marketing consultant whose previous books include We: The Ideal Customer Relationship and Brand Harmony.    Much of his research for this volume was done by attending improvisational performances and workshops, and interviewing improvisational performers.

Some of the tips presented in this book include active listening, making the conversation about the customer’s story and then making it “our” story by matching the customer’s story with the useful bits of yours, and using “yes, and…” instead of “no” or “yes, but.”  It’s a bit much to take all at once, so the author has broken it down into useful habits to work on one or two at a time.  This has website support for the dedicated practitioner.

This book’s message primarily applies to “real-time” conversations; while improvisational speaking is affected by talent, almost everyone can learn the skills with practice and patience.  Despite the reassurances of the author, salesmanship is the main use of the topic in this book.  It is less likely to be useful for those in low-level positions where you are expected to complete X number of calls in an hour, or are punished for going “off-script.”

I would recommend the book itself primarily to those interested in sales or customer service (which also requires improvisational skills.)   I recommend some training in improvisation to everyone who can find time for it; it is very helpful in many areas of life.

 

 

Book Review: Consumed

Book Review: Consumed by David Cronenberg

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes may be made in the final product.

Naomi and Nathan are photojournalists, specializing in lurid crime and medical stories respectively.  They’re what my generation called “hip” and up to date with all the latest technology.  The two are in a mostly stable relationship, though they spend little time together, snatching moments of intimacy when their paths cross.

Consumed

As the story begins, Nathan is doing a story on breast surgery in Budapest, while Naomi has fastened on a news item about a French philosophy professor who has apparently killed and eaten his wife.  Their investigations lead them further apart physically, one to Canada and the other to Japan, but the stories they pursue are more closely intertwined than they could have guessed.

Mr. Cronenberg is, of course, a famous movie director, with credits like The FlyThe Dead Zone and Cosmopolis.  This is his first published novel, cue out in September 2014.

There’s a lot of brand name dropping, and technological fetishism; it’s very “now”, which makes me suspect that in twenty years’ time, the book will have aged badly.  But at this point in time, it’s still fresh.

It’s hard to pin down a genre here–let’s say somewhere between psychological thriller and techno-thriller, with the meaning of and reasons for much of what’s going on left obscure until very near the end.

Naomi and Nathan aren’t particularly likable protagonists.  They’re self-absorbed, low on journalistic ethics, and have a habit of letting their story subjects co-opt them.  Nathan makes a particularly horrible mistake early on which screws up their relationship.  Naomi is confronted more than once with her lack of cultural depth.  On the other hand, better people wouldn’t have gotten into the fixes they do, which are essential to moving the story along.

Some readers are likely to find this book intensely creepy, as there are themes of cannibalism, deformity, insanity, bodily infirmity, insects and disease throughout.   There’s also a lot of talk about sex, even outside the sex scenes.

I found the ending less than satisfying–the story answers a few of the questions, then abruptly stops with a final mind screw and the actual fates of several people up in the air.

If you’re a big fan of Cronenberg movies, this bears a strong resemblance to one of them, and is likely to please.  People with weak stomachs should skip this book.

This may be fixed in the final version, but there’s a use of Japanese honorifics that will be teeth-grinding for those who’ve studied the language–and since both characters in the scene are native speakers of Japanese, they don’t have any excuse.

Manga Review: Ooku

Manga Review:  Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga

In an alternate history version of Japan, disaster strikes during the reign of Shogun Iemitsu (circa 1630).  A plague that becomes known as the “red-face pox” sweeps the islands, with a fatality rate of 80% among boys and young men.  Within a couple of years, the gender imbalance among the younger generation has reached crisis proportions.  Less important to the people, but vital to our story, all the male heirs to the shogunate fall victim to the plague.

Ooku

It is decided that the country, already turning topsy-turvy as young women have to take up the jobs normally reserved for men, cannot be allowed to have turmoil at the top as well.  Iemitsu’s daughter Chie is forced to masquerade as her father for years.  After the people who originally controlled her are dead, and the country has more or less stabilized in its new male-scarce society, she reveals herself to the court.  Until a male heir survives to adulthood, women using men’s names will have to fill in.

Naturally, a female shogun needs men to help her produce an heir, so handsome and/or noble fellows are brought to the Ooku, the “Inner Chambers” in a reversal of the harems of our history.  Most of the story involves these men, trapped in the Shogun’s palace, and trying to find meaning in their lives.

In the volume to hand, #9,  the reign of the seventh female shogun, Ieharu, begins.   Ieharu realizes that the rest of the world has advanced while the Japanese hid themselves away to conceal their lack of men.  Therefore, one of the men she secures for the Ooku is a half-Dutch fellow named Gosaku, who has been trained in Western medicine.  He is renamed Aonuma (“blue pond”) after his eye color.

Thanks to records concealed in the Inner Chambers, Aonuma is able to piece together information about the red-face pox and its origins that have new meaning with his special training.  There might even be a way to prevent it!  However, prejudice against his foreign appearance and the schemes of a woman who believes that she should have been shogun instead may doom these efforts.

This series is an interesting sideways look at Japanese history–what would change if the gender roles were partially reversed, and what would stay the same?  The target audience in Japan is josei (young women), so romance both fulfilled and tragic is a large part of the series.  Unfortunately, so is rape, and there’s some frank depiction of prostitution, so the American edition is rated “Mature.”

The art is quite good, but often the minor characters are hard to tell apart, particularly the handsome young men of the Ooku, who tend towards same-face.  The student of Japanese history will be able to spot certain character traits from clothing styles that are lost on most of us foreigners.

I’d recommend this to historical romance fans and people interested in exploring ideas about gender roles.

TV Review: Lock-Up

TV Review: Lock-Up

Lock-Up was a 1959-1961 crime drama loosely based on the files of real-life attorney Herbert L. Maris.  Mr. Maris was played by Macdonald Carey, and John Doucette played police lieutenant Jim Weston, depicted as Maris’ best friend.

Lock-Up

Herbert Maris was actually a specialist in corporate law who sometimes championed people who’d been unjustly accused of crime on a pro bono basis.  As such, there are no courtroom scenes; Mr. Maris attempts to prove the accused person innocent before a trial begins.

The Mill Creek DVD had eight episodes, four of which are of special interest.  “The Case of Joe Slade” has the protagonists go on a fishing trip, only to discover that their guide is locked up for killing his wife.  Lon Chaney, Jr. guest stars as a sheriff who’s just a little too eager to have the case closed.

“The Beau and Arrow Case” has a psychiatrist murdered with an arrow.  The twist is that Mr. Maris himself  is accused of the crime!  The main suspect, however, is an archery range owner and the doctor’s patient.    This episode was written by Robert Bloch, and is quite tense.  It does rely, however, on the coroner not looking too closely.

“Society Doctor” is another man accused of killing his wealthy wife.  There are several people with motives, and the waters are muddied by one person’s persistent lies.  Jackie Coogan is comic relief as the doctor’s drunken brother in law–but was he really passed out during the time of the crime?

“The Case of Nan Havens” has a young woman caught with microfilm of experimental military hardware in her car.  Mr. Maris must prove that she was the innocent dupe of real spies with the aid of a wisecracking drive-in waitress.  Mary Tyler Moore guest-stars.

It’s very much a period piece–Red spies in two episodes, smoking, and several of the stories have plot points about women having to rely on husbands for money.   There’s even a juvenile delinquency story.  Mr. Maris and Lieutenant Weston often flirt with women in ways that might be considered unprofessional today.

Keeping that in mind, the fun guest stars and the interesting writing make this something worth a watch.

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